Tag Archives: John Dewey

Imagination & Experience: John Dewey

Experience and Education, written in 1938 by John Dewey, was read as a result of reading Maxine Greene. She referenced him often in her writings, including this sentiment:

Consciousness always has an imaginative phase, and imagination; more than any other capacity, breaks through the “inertia of habit” (1934, p. 272).

dewey.pngDewey’s book is short and the commentary on the back cover calls it his most concise statement of his ideas. Well, it may be concise for Dewey but for me his writing was dense and his sentence structure was awkward. By the second to last chapter I was growing impatient with his prose and skipped that entire chapter. Nonetheless, I did benefit from the reading, and here are some of his ideas, mostly from the early chapters, which made an impression on me.

Educational reform based on opposition to what is current in education results in developing a potentially negative construct. Education has tended to be the handing down of information. Education based on experience will be perhaps more beneficial as it helps prepare students for what they will face. Therefore, it is necessary to have a philosophy of experience.

Of importance is the quality of the experience. Is it immediately agreeable or disagreeable, and how does it/will it influence future experiences? Dewey goes on to mention the experiential continuum.

And then there is the following quote, which resonated with me as a teacher and parent, and made me think of those teachers who practice their craft in one way only and do not take into consideration the differences or needs of those they teach.

The principle of interaction makes it clear that failure of adaptation of material to needs and capacities of individuals may cause an experience to be non-educative quite as much as failure of an individual to adapt himself to the material.

The Outdoor Education Research & Evaluation Center has extensive pages about Dewey, including a number of summaries of Experience and Education, a multitude of pages about Experiential Learning & Experiential Education, as well as pages about John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education.

While Dewey is perhaps more commonly linked these days with the idea of experiential education, he did a lot of writing about the arts. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent article discussing Dewey’s Aesthetics, in which much is made of imagination. (I smiled to see that the author had similar feelings to mine regarding the accessibility of Dewey’s written words.) The discussion of imagination begins with part 2, Early Psychological Aesthetic Theory, and makes note of Dewey’s books, Art as Experience and Psychology, neither of which I have read.

According to this article, Dewey defines more than one stage of imagination, with creative imagination being the top level.

The highest form of imagination, creative imagination, allows us to penetrate into the hidden meaning of things through finding sensuous forms that are both highly revealing and pleasurable. The creative imagination makes its objects anew: it separates and combines, but not mechanically. It senses the relations of parts to the development of the whole and it raises details to the level of the universal. It develops the ideal aspect of things, freeing it from the contingent.

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Greenleaf Presentation.3 – You Do It, You Own It

Anyone out there recall trying to teach your child how to tie their shoe laces? I remember when our second son was learning to tie his shoelaces. My memory has it that this was before velcro became a common closure for sneakers. I was thinking about teaching my son to tie his shoelaces during Bob Greenleaf’s presentation after Bob commented that:

The one who does the work is the one who learns.

This is a one-liner version of the Chinese proverb:
Tell me and I forget.
Show me and I remember.
Involve me and I understand.

Or better yet:
Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.

John Dewey, educational philosopher and author of – among others – the book Experience & Education, firmly believed in the value and necessity of experience in building education.

…I have taken for granted the soundness of the principle that education in order to accomplish its ends both for the individual learner and for society must be based upon experience – which is always the actual life–experience of some individual.

However, not just any experience suffices:

Everything depends upon the quality of the experience which is had. … the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences.

This all boils down to the need for personal context in order to create meaning and understanding. Turns out that if something has personal context for the learner, it will remain in working memory longer and have a greater chance of making it into long term memory.

We do not learn in a vacuum; connections and experiences are necessary, and the more there are, the stronger the likelihood of recall.